THE music really couldn’t go any louder, mostly because the crappy little speakers in the doors would start cutting out. Jesse Swanson flicked the knob anyhow, just a bit, pushing the sound system to its limit and reveling in the angry clashing-thrashing sound of the music. What the hell was Kevin’s problem, anyhow? Edie and Lucas had invited both of them to go to the movies, and Kevin had said no. And then he’d gotten pissed off because Jesse had gone without him.
Jesse shouted along to the song, as loud as he could, keeping an eye on his speed as he steered his car down the unplowed length of Collins Road. It was mostly wet and sloppy, but slush turned to ice on the edges, and he didn’t want to go into the ditch. The music trailed off into something that sounded like metal garbage cans being thrown down concrete stairs, and his hand flashed out to skip to the next screamy track. A quarter of a mile ahead, an old oak tree stood at the side of the road, its dark branches wide against the sky. Jesse decided to just drive, now; to yell along with his music and get his annoyance out of his system before he went home. If it had been warmer, or if the sky had been less threatening, he would have stopped to bask in the isolation of the area while his music poured over him.
Something dark lay on the side of the road, just the other side of the tree. As he got closer, Jesse realized that it wasn’t the garbage bag he’d assumed it was. No, it was a dead bird, lying on the shoulder. The sight of it pulled him out of his little bubble of indignation; feeling strangely sorry for it, he turned the music off as he pulled over.
He picked his way through the slush to the bird. It was a raven, lying on its back with its eyes closed and its feet curled tightly on nothing. Maybe someone had hit it—a half-dozen pigeons usually met the same fate every summer. Jesse returned to his car and dug around in the space under the hatchback, finally finding his gloves under an old towel burned through in places by spilled bleach.
He gingerly put his hands on either side of the slightly outspread wings and scooped it up, frowning as its head lolled. It seemed both strangely heavy and strangely light at once, and he wondered briefly if it was the fact that it was dead that made it heavy. Then he shook his head and dismissed the thought, gently placing the bird on the towel. It was impulse, really—probably something left over from when the raven’s ancestors used to eat his own—but Jesse folded the towel over the dark form before dropping his gloves and closing the hatch.
Ten minutes later, squinting through late-spring sleet and wondering what he was going to do with the bird once he got home, Jesse heard an odd sound. Kind of a shuffling noise, and then a kind of patting, like someone feeling around in the back. As he came to a stop at a red light, he glanced into his rearview mirror, just to see what he could see—
He was… cold. Warm and cold, both at once, but mostly cold. And moving, without wanting to move. He opened his eyes. The world was stranger than he’d expected it to be; the colors were different and the scents were all wrong. Something inside him got his body moving; he shoved himself upright, turning his head this way and that. The cold, boxy metal things were all around him, and he was inside one! Had he been eaten? He recognized the sound of a man, ahead of him, and tried to speak.
“Keh,” he said.
“What the hell?” Jesse turned around in his seat, staring at the head and shoulders he could see. Dark hair, wet and sticking to his forehead, skin so pale it was almost blue, dark eyes. “Who the hell are you and how did you get into my car?”
The words didn’t mean anything to him, but he tried to respond anyhow. Some little thing inside him, voice or sensation or a combination of the two, told him that it was important. Very important. “Uh.” The young man blinked, opening and closing his mouth a few times as if he wasn’t sure how it worked.
“Who are you? What’s your name? Do you—damn.” Jesse settled back into the driver’s seat as people honked at him. He turned in at the first parking lot he came to, pulled across two spots, and nearly fell out of his car in his haste to get around to the back.
When the cover over him rose, he got his first close look at the man. The voice (it had a whispery quality to it) said: Yes. This is the right one. Maybe the man could explain, could tell him the right what. With this hope in mind, he looked up into the man’s face.
Jesse was ready for a lot of things: apologies, lies, even laughter and an explanation of some kind of weird prank. He was not at all ready for the look the guy gave him, a look that clearly said I am possibly more helpless than a newborn opossum. Once he was past that, however, the guy was naked, wet, and shivering, the old towel draped across his lap. The towel reminded Jesse that there had been a dead bird in the back; was the guy sitting on it?
“What happened to”—to hell with the stupid bird—”you? Are you all right? What’s your name? Why are you wet and naked, and more importantly, why are you wet and naked and in my car?” Not that Jesse objected, generally speaking, to guys being naked around him. Or wet. Or wet and naked; however, he preferred to get to know them beforehand. Besides, the guy was in his car without so much as an “excuse me,” which was the pimento olive on top of a very weird sundae.
He remained silent, just absorbing the sound of the man’s voice.
“Okay. Uh.... ¿Usted habla español? And that’s about all the Spanish I know, sorry.” After another minute of being stared at like there was nothing else to see, Jesse sighed. “Here,” he said, taking off his jacket and offering it to the guy, “at least you’ll be a little warmer.”
The thing that was offered to him was warm. It smelled good, too, and he pressed it to his face, trying to sort out and memorize the notes that made up its scent. The smell made him want something, but he didn’t know what it was.
“Uh, don’t—well, I guess it would have gotten wet anyhow, but….” Jesse tugged at his jacket, mildly surprised when the guy let go of it. “Here, like this.” He draped it around the other young man’s shoulders, carefully keeping his eyes on the fabric as he fastened the middle three snaps. “There. That’s better, right?” No answer but that same constant gaze.
“Okay, you know what? I think we should go see a doctor or something, make sure you’re really okay. So, um, you just stay right there and we’ll do that,” Jesse said, then sighed as the guy tilted his head. “Watch your head.”
THE next morning, the two of them sat at the dining table: Jesse with coffee and toast, the guy with a bowl of cereal.
“Since the doctor said you’re basically okay, and Mom and Dad said you can stay here, and you didn’t mind me deciding that you needed to be Christopher Valentine Swanson instead of John Doe, I’ll talk to Betsy and Tanner while I’m at the store today,” Jesse said, between bites. “It’ll have to be an under-the-table deal, because you don’t have any ID or anything, but as long as you’re working, Dad’ll be happy.”
Chris nodded, but his eyes were on the sunlight that fell on his spoon. The cereal that Jesse had fixed for him had long since absorbed all the milk, and he hadn’t even tasted it.
“Are you, uh, not hungry?” Jesse pointed at the bowl. “Or do you not like cereal?”
Chris considered it, then stuck a finger in and scooped up some of the resulting mush. It didn’t look very tasty, but his little voice reminded him that he liked things that didn’t look as if they’d taste good. He stuck his finger into his mouth, nodding at the sweetness that spread across his tongue, then pulled the bowl closer and helped himself to more.
“Uh, Chris?” Jesse was looking at him. “Use the spoon, not your hand, okay?”
Spoon. He looked at the metal thing he held, remembering last night’s instruction on using a fork. Wondering what would happen if he tried repeating the sounds—they seemed easy enough—he gave it a try. “Sssp—sspoon,” he said, his voice raspy.
“Oh hey! You said spoon!”
Jesse’s face stretched, the man showing his teeth the way he did when it seemed he was pleased about something. Chris nodded again, thinking about the sounds that the other man used to refer to himself. “J-Jesssssee.”
“Awesome,” Jesse said, ignoring the strange feeling that hearing his name had kindled. “I’m Jesse, that’s a spoon, and you are?” He pointed at the other young man.
“That’s right, and this is excellent,” Jesse said, then frowned as his phone beeped at him. He got up and took his dishes to the sink. “I gotta get out of here, Chris, but I’ll be back for lunch, okay? Eat your breakfast, don’t burn down the house, and I’ll see you in a little while.”
Chris nodded and picked up more of the sweet goo with the spoon, the admonition lost on him. “Okay.”
Once Jesse was gone, Chris abandoned the cereal in favor of opening the refrigerator. There were all sorts of intriguing boxes and bottles and other packages inside, and he wanted to know what was in each of them.
The first thing that caught his eye was a white container with black scribbles on top. The scribbles didn’t matter, because the little voice reminded him that the shape of the container meant food. He pulled it open and was delighted to discover that it held—well, he wasn’t entirely sure what it was, other than brown and green lumps, with a pile of white grainy stuff that had smaller, fuzzier green lumps on it.
He sat right down on the floor and happily, messily, began to eat. As he was licking his fingers clean, Chris noticed a box on the lowest shelf with a picture of something he didn’t recognize on it. He knew what the thing beside it was: a nest. In the nest were eggs, and the thought of eggs made him feel strange: excited, hungry, the faintest hint of worried. Hunger and excitement won out, though, and he pulled the box into his lap.
The top came open easily, and he stared. Eggs. Lots of eggs. More eggs than he’d ever seen in his whole life, as far as he knew. Chris picked one out and held it up, suddenly realizing that he didn’t know how to get them open. He needed help. He needed a tool. He needed… a spoon.
Spoon retrieved, Chris broke the top of the egg and tipped the contents into his mouth. Cold and thick and the rich oiliness of the yolk—oh, it was even better than finding the whatever it was in the white container. Speaking of which, Chris looked back and forth between the eggs and the remaining stuff in the container, then picked up a second egg, broke the top, and poured it onto the green and brown stuff. He added another egg, then stirred everything together with the spoon.
It was delicious. When he’d finished off the brown and green and white stuff, he focused solely on the eggs. He had eggs, Jesse had been happy that he’d spoken, Jesse would come back, and all was more than well in his world.
“CHRIS? I’m home!” The house felt empty. Well, Chris might have gone out for a walk, since no one had told him not to leave the house. On the other hand, he might have decided to take a nap or a bath or something. Jesse trotted up the stairs and discovered that Chris was nowhere to be found: not in Jesse’s nor his parents’ room and definitely not in either cold, dark bathroom.
Downstairs again, he checked the living and dining rooms for a note, finding nothing but Chris’s cereal. After thinking about it, he realized he had no idea if Chris could read or write, so looking for a note was really sort of silly. He glanced into the kitchen and forgot about notes. “What the hell?”
Jesse threw away the half-dozen eggshells and the empty box from the leftover Chinese his dad had brought home, what, almost two weeks ago, now? He couldn’t remember. Then he put what was left of the eggs back in the fridge, shaking his head. Now he really wanted to find Chris, because that was entirely too bizarre. As he walked back into the dining room to get the bowl, he realized that the curtain over the back door was moving in the breeze. He stuck his head out and looked around.
“Chris?” The guy was hunched up in the corner formed by the house and the railing of the porch.
“Jesse.” Jesse was back. Maybe he could fix it, fix the horrible way he felt.
Jesse looked around the porch and noticed that there was a large puddle of something not too far from Chris. “Oh my God, you did eat the leftovers.”
Chris opened his eyes, peering through hair made stringy with sweat. Jesse was standing there and shaking his head, but Chris was too miserable to care. His body hurt, his stomach had been trying to turn itself inside out, and he was pretty sure that he was going to die.
“Let’s get you in the house, okay? And we need to get you some water, too. I wonder if you’ve got salmonella. Mom might know, but she’s at work.” Jesse moved toward Chris, who lurched forward onto his hands and knees, his body curling up tight as he was wracked with dry heaves.
Yes, Chris decided, death would be a mercy. It would be so much better than this deep, wrenching pain that came with bitter slime at the back of his throat. He coughed and curled up, hoping that Jesse would come over and kill him.
“Come on,” Jesse said, leaning down and getting hold of his arm. “You need to come inside now, okay?” Chris was shivering, whether from reaction, fever, or just the breeze over his sweat-soaked clothes, Jesse didn’t know.
His eyes mostly closed, aching and miserable, Chris stumbled along beside the other young man as they made their way upstairs.
“I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but you really need a shower,” Jesse said, coming to a halt in front of the door to the upstairs bathroom. The sour smell of vomit made him wrinkle his nose as he turned on the light. “It’ll help you feel better, too.”
“Okay.” Shower. The thing in the big trough that was like rain without clouds or wind.
Jesse started the water, then turned and helped Chris out of his soggy pajamas. “All right. I’m going to go get a glass, a towel, some dry PJs, stuff like that. I’ll be back as soon as I can. You get clean and warmed up.”
“Mm.” The hot water felt good running over his skin, helping to ease the knots in his belly and to take the chill off. He stayed under the spray until Jesse reached in and took his arm, helping him out to stand dripping on the bath mat. Once he was mostly dry and in clean pajamas, he curled up in his cot and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Chris woke in the dimness of Jesse’s room. “Jesse?”
“Hey.” Jesse’s voice came from somewhere behind him. He turned over, teeth clenched tightly together. Other than another wave of cramps, he seemed to be all right.
“Are you feeling better?”
“Okay.” Jesse was sitting in the chair in front of the flat panel that glowed in the dark. He could see a picture of a man on it, parts of the man covered up by boxes, one of which began to blink as he looked.
“Good, glad to hear it,” Jesse said. “You should drink some more water.”
Water. Yes, that sounded very good. His mouth was sticky and dry, his throat raw. “Water,” Chris said. He sat up slowly, then looked around. “Water?”
“Oh, crap, I took your glass downstairs. Hang on and I’ll go get you some, okay?”
“Okay.” Chris watched him go, then looked at the flat panel again. The blinking box was covered up by another one, and then another, and then nothing more. He looked at the man instead, wondering if he was alive, and if so why he was on (or in) the panel. Then he wondered if he was important, important to Jesse. The thought of him being important to Jesse made him feel strange, but in a different way than the eggs had.
“Here we go,” Jesse said, coming in. “I would have been back sooner but Mom made some soup and brought home some more crackers, so she made me bring up enough for an army.” He carried a tray with a couple of bowls, a square white thing, and a couple of glasses of water on it. “Well, enough for us, anyhow. Here. Careful, it’s hot.”
Chris took the bowl that Jesse offered him, setting it on his knees. “Spoon?”
“Yeah, here you go.” Jesse handed over a spoon and a piece of paper towel. “Here’s the water, too.”
“Water.” It tasted good, better by far than the eggs. He drained the glass, then held it out, gasping as he did.
“Slow down,” Jesse said, taking the glass back. “You’ll make yourself sick again, and you don’t want that.”
“Water,” Chris said, plaintively, then burped. What had that been?
Jesse smothered his laughter at the look on Chris’s face. “I’ll be right back.”
He stirred the soup, then lifted a spoonful and blew across it as Leanna had demonstrated at dinner. It was warm, salty, and tasted almost as good as the water had. Chris was careful to use the spoon, but it seemed terribly inefficient.
Jesse came back with two glasses of water, and the two of them spent the next few minutes eating. Chris finally gave up on the spoon and picked up the bowl and sipped from it, though he turned away from Jesse as he did.
“It’s okay to drink soup like that,” Jesse said, leaning over and bumping his hand against Chris’s shoulder. “Just don’t use your fingers. Here.”
Chris turned back and took the crackers that Jesse held. “Okay.”
Jesse glanced at the panel, grumbling and sighing. He touched the rounded block that made clicking sounds, then pulled the long flat thing with buttons on it toward himself. “Didn’t have to be a bastard about it,” he mumbled.
“Okay?” Chris scooped up noodles with half of a cracker.
“Yeah, more or less,” Jesse said, but Chris didn’t like the sound of his voice. “Oh, hey. I talked to Betsy and Tanner, today. They both said they’d be thrilled if you’d like to come work in produce, but they don’t wanna do an under-the-table thing. We’re gonna have to figure out how to get you some ID, which will probably take a couple of weeks.”
“Oh.” Chris ate some more noodles, watching Jesse as he poked at the flat thing with buttons with one hand and stirred his soup with the other. “Okay.”
“The other thing is….” Jesse turned away from his desk and looked at Chris for a few moments. “The other thing is, you kind of need some more vocabulary. ‘Okay’ is good, but you’re gonna need to know things like ‘potato’ and ‘mango’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘right this way.’ And I’m kind of worried about you eating stuff that you shouldn’t, like Dad’s leftovers. Why’d you eat them, anyhow? Weren’t they moldy?”
Chris just shook his head and finished his soup. “Okay.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say,” Jesse said, smiling a little. “Don’t worry about it, okay? Do you want some more soup?”